UJ researcher highlights the significance of nanotechnology in healthcare

The fourth industrial revolution will have a greater impact on the evolution of global healthcare in the decades to come and nanotechnology would be a major contributor to this.

According to Samuel Oluwatobi Oluwafemi, a senior lecturer and researcher in Applied Chemistry at the University of Johannesburg (UJ), biotechnologists together with nanotechnologists can discover/fabricate new generation medicine or even a robot programmed to target cancer cells.

“The ultimate goal of the research is to go beyond the laboratory experimental work, to answer questions such as appropriate dosage, delivery system and exposure times that maximize clinical effectiveness while minimizing side effects, to increase the clinical acceptance of this technology,” said Professor Samuel Oluwatobi Oluwafemi  when he delivered his professorial inauguration address titled How small things can make a big world a better place: The significance of Nano in a Macro world.

Prof Oluwafeni’s inaugural took place in the University’s Council Chambers, Madibeng Building, Auckland Park Kingsway Campus on Monday, 19 August 2019.

He argued that the outcome of this research will provide renewed hope for patients diagnosed with cancer. “This will also improve the rate of survival of cancer patients, not for just those living in South Africa but globally as the outcome of this research will lead to effective intervention in medical care capacity development. Furthermore, this research will provide alternate clinical treatment for cancer than the present chemotherapy which when developed into clinical treatment will advance the economy. Thus, the long-time success of this work will have greater chances of attracting international funding as well as collaborations with pharmaceutical companies,” he said.

Prof Oluwafeni highlighted that the developed superhydrophobic membrane will be used for the desalination and treatment of wastewater via membrane distillation with the aim of going beyond the laboratory experimental work, to calculate energy and cost required for the treatment of various wastewater such as industrial effluents, home and municipal wastewater in order to increase the commercial acceptance of this technology.

“The world has been through various industrial revolutions since the 18th century. It has been said that we are now in the fourth industrial revolution. According to the World Economic Forum, the 4th industrial revolution belongs to “cyber-physical systems” which can merge the capabilities of both human and machine. This is the era of artificial intelligence, genome editing, renewable energy, 3D printing, autonomous vehicles, big data and the Internet of Things can combine the physical, digital and biological worlds.”

He stressed that the fourth industrial revolution will have a greater impact on the evolution of global healthcare in the decades to come and nanotechnology would be a major contributor to this. “Unlike the current therapies which attack the whole body, nanodrugs can be directed to the tumor in a patient’s body and can be activated upon reaching the target. These nanorobots or nanites carrying nanodrugs will be small enough to enter the human blood stream to perform a wide array of functions such as targeting the cells, delivering the drugs, cleaning arteries, killing viruses and potentially conducting surgery from the inside.”  

Prof Oluwafeni concluded: “While previous industrial revolutions modernised world, we must not forget that our current environmental problems such as pollution, water crisis, climate change are their serious consequences. Water scarcity especially has become a key challenge in developing countries like South Africa and India due to industrialization and increasing population. The expected gap in global water supply and demand by 2050 is 40%.

Though the fourth industrialisation could exacerbate existing threats, there is also an opportunity to harness this revolution to address these problems. The emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence combined with advanced sensors can be deployed into water bodies to analyze the quality of water and share the information. This will allow us to see where and how the waterways are contaminated for instance if they are near to industry that discharges contaminants. Advanced nanomaterials such as quantum dot-composites which can detect the contaminant quickly will open new possibilities for smart sensors and water treatment. For example, a new polymer nanocomposite membrane, combined with AI software, can analyse data from flow and pressure sensors to determine the best water treatment.  New types of graphene-based membranes and new technologies such as membrane distillation could revolutionize the desalination market, which has grown steadily over the past several years.”